Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Book Review - Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Book Review: Nine Lives

Book Details. . .

·         Title: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
·         Author: William Dalrymple
·         Genre: Non Fiction / Travel Writings
·         Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing India Private Limited (2013)
·         ISBN: 1408846144 (ISBN-13: 978-1408846148)
·         Pages: 304 Pages
·         Rating: 3.75/5

Behind The Book. . .

A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet - then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple delves deep into the heart of a nation torn between the relentless onslaught of modernity and the continuity of ancient traditions.

Book Synopsis. . .

Nine lives is a compilation of anecdotes of author William Dalrymple’s travel diaries and his deep search of India’s slowly dying traditions and strong uprooted beliefs of its people which are struggling against the onslaught of modernization and current economic growth. These represent the chapters of the India’s rich cultural heritage, deep spiritual customs and hardcore religious practices which reveal the colours of true India to the readers unraveling the thread layer by layer. As per author’s own words, “Nine Lives is conceived as a collection of linked non-fiction short stories, with each life representing a different form of devotion or a different religious path. Each life is intended to act as a keyhole into the way that each specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India’s metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape.”

In The Nun’s Tale the author describes his meeting with a nun, Prasannamati Mataji, exploring her journey of transformation from a lively & pampered teenage girl to a revered, renounced nun. The author beautifully pens down his experience while throwing light on various aspects of Jainism leading to the spiritual aspect of the road to salvation. (. . . dwells deep into Jain practices of renunciation and Sallekhana)

The Dances of Kannur explains the story of Hari Das, a dalit by caste and part-time prison warden by profession. The low caste Dalit, who is derided and dejected for nine months of the year, enjoys the transformation into an omnipotent deity as a theyyam dancer during the balance three months and is respected and worshiped even by the highest of the classes. The dance form ‘theyyam’ (derived from a Sanskrit word daviam meaning God) is a complete inversion of the normal ritualistic structure where God choose to incarnate not in high caste, pure and sanctified Brahmin but into a neglected, shunned low caste Dalit. (. . . a story of one deprived and neglected soul’s escape into art and dream).

The Daughters of Yellamma, tells the story of devdasis who worships Goddess Yellamma (mother of Parshuram). It narrates the horrifying culture of dedicating daughters to deities and devdasis who are later forced to flesh trade. (. . . explores the lives of devotional prostitutes in and around Karnataka known as Devdasis).

In The Singer of Epics, the author shares the story of singer Mohan Bhopa, who recites great Rajasthani medieval poem ‘The Epic of Pabuji’ at Pabusar. He remains one of the last singers of the four thousand lines sacred epic poem which is slowly vanishing like many other epical verses amidst the increasing inclination of people towards Bollywood, movies and television. It poignantly explores the realms of love, faith and strong belief that is devoid of logic and scientific principles of law and solely rests upon the undying trust and belief on the legendary Pabuji. (. . . another of the perfect case of a dying heritage and a person’s deep effort in keeping it alive).

The Red Fairy narrates the story about a lady fakir ‘Lal Peri’ who is the native of Bihar in eastern India and ends up at Sufi shrine of Sehwan Sharif at Sindh in Pakistan as the most passionate of the saint’s devotee. The shrine which is the abode of Lal Shahbaz Kalandar bringing in the people of all religions and faiths now struggles with the growing influence of Talibanisation which is destroying the essence & spirit of Sufism. The modern Wahhabis and Talibans strongly condemn the Sufi’s path of music, poetry and dance as a way of remembering & reaching God. (This happens to be one of my favourite stories of the book . . . a heartfelt tale of a Sufi shrine struggling amidst radicalism).

The Monk’s Tale tells the story of a Buddhist monk who decided to take up the arms when his monastery came under the pressure from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. As atonement for the violence he committed, the monk lives in exile in Himalayas printing and distributing prayers flags and reciting God’s name. (…another powerful and captivating story which moves you owing to its sheer honesty and realism).

The Maker of Idols shares the plight of an idol maker Srikanda Stpathy (the twenty-third in the long hereditary line going back to legendary Chola bronze makers) who is struggling and worried for the continuation of the legacy as his son instead wants to study computers leaving the age long family business into jittery. He regards the creation of idol as the holiest and sacred calling of the God and thus is now struggling to reconcile to the fact of his dying lineage. (. . . talks about the dying profession and father’s dilemma in light of modernization and kids attracted to other professions)

The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel shares the lives of souls who were banished from the families, kins and castes & found solace, love and harmony in the band of religious ecstatic. The first story talks about author’s acquaintance with a tantric and devotee of Goddess Tara in Tarapeeth (a shaktipeeth said to be an abode of Devi’s third eye). The second story dwells into the lives of the various saffron clad wandering minstrels or Bauls (as they are often referred to, meaning mad or possessed in Bengali), who wanders and sings folk songs. (. . . explores the dark world of tantra & tantrics and minstrels)

My Thoughts. . .

William Dalrymple has been in my ‘to be read’ list since long and my fascination to read him stemmed from his couple of articles and excerpts which I had read earlier at varied places (one of which being ‘The Dances of Kannur’ featuring in the current compilation). His travel diaries always offer a thrilling experience to the reader portraying the panorama of his sojourning in such a simple yet captivating manner that one can actually visualize and relate to each juncture in the story, something which makes him one of the best authors of this genre.

‘Nine Lives’ is a hard-hitting attempt by the author deep diving into some of the prestigious legacies and traditions of the country, its people and their struggle to stay afloat amidst the inexorable onslaught of modernization and societal transformation. While the lives of the nine souls are apparently discrete in terms of the backdrop, circumstances and characterization; these are intertwined and connected by a common thread of Faith and Persistence – ‘Faith’ that the constant war they are waging within and outside to let their sole identity remain alive would be successful & ‘Persistence’ to remain afloat despite being displaced by the society.

The craft and structure of each of the story are such that the author just works as the initiator of the stories and then the characters themselves steers away the entire tale on their shoulders. The descriptive texts in between regarding the prevalent practices, rituals and customs further add to the charm of the reading, providing that extra detailing about the prevalent customs and practices wherever needed. The manner Dalrymple has spanned through his writing across the length and breadth of the country only reflects the acute research, laboring effort and deep dive he has done into country’s diverse yet rich cultural and topographical heritage. I mean starting from a renounced nun’s life in Shravanabelagola in Karnataka traversing through theyyam dance in Kannur in Kerala, to parched and dusty deserts of Rajasthan, to majestic and mystic peaks of scintillating Himalayas, to dark world of tantra and tantrics & minstrels in Bengal and not to forget the mystifying Sufism across the border in Pakistan…one cannot just help but to wonder in awe and praise about the intricacies of his writings and research.

Each of the stories is a work of non-fiction and undertakes a journey into one of the customary ritual or practice prevalent in India tracing its origin and running across the path of its transformation eventually leading to its current status. In a unique way, it does (in some cases) silently questions about the price the current generation is paying for the urbanization and advancement in life. It is actually startling to think about those innumerable rich cultural heritages which have either extinguished or are on the verge of getting stubbed out – the cost benefit analysis of what are we gaining to lose what we had gained as a rich legacy is something which would surely raise eye-brows of many. Kudos to the author for bringing out that piece of realization in reader’s mind; Dalrymple writing amply brings out the elements of compassion, humanity and poignancy in words which flow effortlessly towards the ultimate destination of self-realization. At rarer of the instances, though, the narration does become a bit more descriptive but the charm of the story and characters that follows next makes up for the same.

The cover page of the book is captivating in red colour with the half face of what appears as the fully adorned theyyam dancer with big glaring eyes. The title of the book is apt as it dwells into the life of nine different souls which speaks about Indian rituals, customs and practices – hence the tagline, ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’ (though the book does span beyond India as well as there is a story of Sufi shrine across border). The printing, font and word spacing are decent enough to grant reader a comfortable read.

The Final Word. . .

A perfect blend of travel writing, story-telling and non-fiction, the ‘Nine Lives’ is a literary experience connecting your soul with each of the lives experiencing their struggles and triumph & eventually making you a part of their faith and journey. As a travelogue, it introduces various unseen and unheard realms of country’s topography, people and traditions; as a tale, it introduces heartwarming (and heartbreaking) stories of which stirs your sentiments taking you on a compassionate ride.

A must read for the lovers of this genre for the sheer brilliant craft and description conferring that mystical experience to the thoughts and for the rest of the mass, a perfect piece of literature to make an exception J

Rating: 3.75/5

Five Favorite Quotes. . .

1.      But going into an unknown world and confronting it without a single rupee in our pockets means the differences between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, all vanish, and a common humanity emerges.
2.      Truly you are a wise man and well on the path of salvation! But you will never get there unless you understand that all men are deserving of respect and compassion.
3.      The mullahs are always trying to fight a jihad with their swords,' said Sain Fakir, 'without realising that the real jihad is within, fighting yourself, achieving victory over your desires, and the hell that evil can create within the human heart. Fighting with swords is a low kind of jihad. Fighting yourself is the greater jihad. As Latif said, "Don't kill infidels, kill your own ego.”
4.      Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not. It was not lack of interest, but literacy itself, that was killing the oral epic.
5.      For me, that ended forever my identity as a Brahmin. That very day I changed my name. I had been Dev Kumar Bhattacharyya—any Bengali knows that that is a Brahmin name, with all the privileges that go with it. But a Baul has to name himself as a Das—a slave of the Lord—so I became simply Debdas Baul. The Brahmins had rejected me, so I rejected them, just as I rejected their whole horrible idea of caste and the divisions it creates. I wanted freedom from that whole system.

About the Author. . .

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. City of Djinns won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The Age of Kali won the French Prix D'Astrolabe and White Mughals won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize. The Last Mughal was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. His most recent book, Nine Lives, was published in 2009 to huge acclaim. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi. 

To know more about him, visit his official website here.

Where to grab a copy. . .

Please click here to buy the book from Amazon

Please click here to buy the book from Flipkart

~ Shubh Life . . . OM Sai Ram 

© 2016 Manish Purohit (Reserved)

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